My first question for Robert Freudenberg, the vice president of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, is really the only one that matters: If another storm, one more powerful than Sandy — say, Hurricane Maria, which may yet hit the East Coast after tearing its way through the Caribbean — hits New York City, how screwed are we?
Freudenberg lets out a bit of a chuckle. “Screwed with an asterisk,” he says, “depending on the storm that hits.”
Screwed, depending is either the name of the shittiest rom-com ever or the current predicament facing every coastal American city. New York City had done almost nothing prior to Sandy to prepare for a major hurricane strike, despite the fact that climate scientists had been warning about the growing danger of such an event for at least two decades. In a 2015 paper for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Columbia University climate scientist Klaus Jacob recounted these failures to address our vulnerable cities. “Sandy provided an opportunity to change this,” he wrote, “but while some incremental changes to reduce risk are under way, we are still in denial of the long-term consequences of sea level rise.”
The “incremental changes” to which Jacob was referring are the same that Freudenberg points to when he declares New York City “ahead of the curve,” at least as far as American cities go, when it comes to sea level rise and storm protections. We had our shot across the bow in the form of Sandy, which wasn’t nearly as powerful as the recent storms down south. Now the mayor has an entire Office of Recovery and Resiliency. There are solid evacuation plans in place for Lower Manhattan. The electrical grid has been upgraded to be more resilient. Plans are in place to build a seawall around Lower Manhattan. Nearly 300 homes in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, were bought out by the state and turned into wetlands. The MTA is making progress on installing 5,600 rapid-deployment covers to the various openings in the system so that it doesn’t become an emergency drainage system.
But we’re still talking about a fraction of the steps necessary to make the city truly storm-resistant. Billions more dollars are needed, including from the private sector, which so far has not contributed in any substantial way, save for stormproofing some new waterfront apartments. Beyond that, progress is slow. That Lower Manhattan wall? It was announced in 2014, but construction hasn’t begun; the project keeps getting scaled back, and nobody knows when it’ll actually be built or what the final form will look like. “Work is far from finished” on the storm covers, Jacob tells the Voice, noting that with the MTA hurting for funds, it’s hard to expedite the remaining work. The Oakwood Beach project is a successful pilot program, but in the meantime thousands of apartments have been built along high-risk flood zones in Brooklyn and Queens; while some of this construction at least puts critical operations such as electrical systems above likely water levels, it’s still more people in flood-prone areas.
The problem for politicians is a familiar one: incentives. They’re elected for the short term, and addressing long-term problems provides very little political payoff. Why spend billions on a century-long need when there are so many immediate ones, like affordable housing and the subway crisis? (The answer, of course, is because it’s really fucking important, but whatever.) Plus, it’s been five years since Sandy, just long enough for a false sense of security to set in. Subway stations damaged by Sandy have reopened. There haven’t been any close calls. Life has gone on.
Are we prepared for the next Sandy or the even worse storm that will eventually arrive? The expert answer is no, we’re not. But even if we had built the seawall or other infrastructure to secure the city, that would just delay the inevitable. As Jacob pointed out in his paper, those billions are merely the up-front cost. The infrastructure then has to be maintained and expanded upon as sea levels continue to rise into the next century. At the climate’s current rate of change, the “defend and fortify” method can only go so far, requiring constant vigilance beyond anything New York City has ever managed about anything.
Jacob’s paper predicted that, by the end of this century, a “Sandy-like flood will occur, on average, once every 10 years (or an annual chance of 1 in 10).” But Freudenberg believes it’s not helpful to think in these terms. Instead, he says, we simply need to “acknowledge things are going to change so much. We don’t know what is coming or when it’s coming.” All we can do is be prepared. Hopefully someone will get right on that.